Under clear blue skies, we scrambled up a rocky path to the top of Khezr mountain. From the peak, the holy city of Qom spread out under our feet, the gleaming gold dome and twin minarets of its famous shrine sparkling in the unusually strong winter sunlight. A single doorway led into the coolness of a tiny mosque, a place of pilgrimage for Muslims seeking help and comfort from Allah. An elderly woman sweeping the entryway looked up with a smile as we stepped inside, only too happy to oblige when Friedel asked for help putting on a chador from the pile available for visitors.
Qom is Iran’s most conservative city – the home of religious clerics and the starting point of the 1979 Islamic revolution. Here, simply wearing a headscarf and covering your arms and legs is not enough to gain entrance to a sacred place. A chador is essential to ensure modesty, a point the woman was keen to drive home as she draped a piece of fabric like a bedsheet over Friedel. It covered everything from head-to-toe in a swathe of black.
“Wear a chador all the time or God will want to know why you haven’t on the day of judgement,” she said with a pointed finger and all the firmness of a mother delivering a lecture to a misbehaving child.
It was just the sort of welcome we expected from Qom; friendly but stern. Truth be told, we might not have come at all if we hadn’t met two Americans living in the city and decided to visit. Iranians thought we were crazy for accepting the invitation.
“People in Qom make me nervous. They always look to make sure I’m wearing my chador correctly,” said one particularly religious friend. If she was uneasy going to Qom, what awaited two Western tourists who might unwittingly fail to live up to the stricter interpretations of hijab? As a man, Andrew has a relatively easy ride – just covering his arms and legs is enough – but for Friedel things are more complicated. She’d only just mastered the mysteries of the headscarf let alone those of the semi-circular chador, which even practiced Iranians say takes years to truly wear with grace. Without zippers or buttons, the chador must be constantly held by your hands or, when those are full of shopping, your teeth.
We shouldn’t have been worried. Within minutes of our arrival we found ourselves, in the best tradition of Iranian hospitality, embraced not only by our American friends but by a troop of students studying English and very eager to make us at home. Over popcorn and juice we got to know each other.
The next day they took us on a tour of the city, revealing a side of Qom that wasn’t just about religion. In the cool alleyways of the bazaar, carpet makers knelt over their latest work, carefully adding the finishing touches to silk masterpieces worthy of being framed. Outside the streets were packed with families tucking into freshly fried doughnuts and we couldn’t help but notice a small number of women in fashionable and shapely manteaus.
Friedel was, however, still struggling with her borrowed chador as we entered the holy shrine. In a moment of clumsiness, the cover slipped from her head, catching the attention of two guards. “Hello Missus,” they called immediately, chasing after us with a multi-coloured featherduster they use to point crowds in the right direction. We anticipated the worst, ready to be scolded and asked to leave for entering a sacred Muslim place. Not at all. “Where are you from?” they wanted to know before asking if we were Christian and welcoming us to the city.
Later, at ceremonies marking Arba’een, one of the most important events in the Shia calendar, we continued to feel the warmth of the people of Qom. Smiles greeted us from every corner and picnicing families motioned for us to join them. We couldn’t help but feel that Qom had been given a rather undeserved reputation. A holy city it certainly is with deep respect for Islam. Waves of black chadors still rule the streets giving an initially sombre impression but appearances are decieving. Here in Qom, as we’ve experienced everywhere in Iran, the people couldn’t be more kind.